Jolie Grant is at a loss.

She is hiring for nearly every position at her bar and restaurant—Jolie’s Place, a staple of the Chandler community for nearly a decade. Grant has needed help since the business first reopened after being shuttered for weeks due to the governor’s coronavirus mandates in the summer of 2020.

A year later, she is still looking to fill positions.

“We’ve [the owner and general manager] spent numerous hours in the kitchen helping staff doing whatever it takes to stay afloat,” Grant said. “It’s been tough. It’s really frustrating. You’re trying to keep people working and stay open.”

Like Jolie’s Place, “Help wanted” signs can be found in the windows of many Chandler restaurants and businesses as owners struggle to fill positions.

Although the Arizona Commerce Authority reports unemployment is down 3.5 percentage points to 4.9% from June 2020 to June 2021, economist Jim Rounds of the Rounds Consulting Group in Tempe cautions that numbers must be compared to pre-pandemic levels. Comparing February 2020 to June 2021, unemployment is up 1.7 percentage points with employment down nearly 200 jobs and labor force up 2,500 workers.

In Chandler, the city still has yet to see unemployment dip back down to pre-COVID-19 levels. As of July, the city had an unemployment rate of 4.9%, compared to 3.5% in February 2020, according to the Arizona Commerce Authority.

Rounds said he believes an economic imbalance was brought on by the pandemic and subsequent stimulus packages. Those monies allowed lower-wage workers to not have to work. He said the imbalance could work itself out over time, especially as stimulus money goes away.

“You’re going to end up with higher wages, which is going to draw people back into the market—temporarily,” he said. “It’ll put pressure on profits and is going to put pressure on small businesses, but that’s the way it has to work. And when we start to see the stimulus money is not flowing through the economy, like it has been so far, then you’re going to see people looking for work, and that’ll put downward pressure on wages again.”

Rounds said some social factors that came through the pandemic have had an effect on the labor market as well.

“We went through a very tough time, and people re-evaluated their need to work in general,” he said.

‘It’s every industry’

Terri Kimble, president and CEO of the Chandler Chamber of Commerce, said the labor shortage is affecting industries across Chandler—from manufacturing and engineering to hospital employees and line cooks.

“It’s not just one industry,” Kimble said. “It’s every industry that’s feeling this. There is a shortage of workers all across all venues. We are seeing it across the spectrum.”

Employment in Arizona is down 1.5% overall from February 2020 to June 2021, according to data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with employment declining in most sectors statewide. Hardest hit beyond leisure and hospitality at 9.9% was professional and business services down 2.1% and construction and extraction 1.2%. Trade and transportation, which includes shipping activities, was the lone sector that saw growth, up 5%.

Kimble said she believes the labor shortage is “complex and can’t be linked to just one thing.”

“I think in COVID-19, it has forced everyone to re-evaluate what their priorities are,” she said. “We are seeing an increase in the number of people who want to start their own businesses. They may not go back to the workforce; they are doing what they can to start their own. We are also seeing businesses have shifted and are looking at processes and internal things that maybe need shifting. We are also seeing a lot of employee fatigue and burnout.”

A Pew Research Center survey released in February found that 66% of the unemployed had “seriously considered” changing their field of work—a greater percentage than during the Great Recession.

“People are really looking internally at what is best for them and looking to find a balance,” Kimble said.

Kimble said the Chandler chamber is doing what it can to help business owners and workers connect. It hosts a virtual job fair and continually posts positions for businesses seeking employees.

Affected in more ways than one

Grant said Jolie’s Place is not only seeing a shortage in workers, but the business is also seeing industry shortages and price hikes—as is the case of chicken wings, the price of which has shot up during COVID-19 recovery. In some cases, Grant is having trouble getting beer because of a shortage of glass bottles.

“So we have nothing to put [the beer in], no one to deliver it, no one to stock it and no one to serve it,” Grant said. “It’s not funny. It’s just so sad and frustrating, especially for small businesses like ours.”

Because of shortages and increases in product costs, Grant said the restaurant may have to raise some of its prices. But that is not the only thing causing increases in the cost for customers. Minimum-wage increases are also driving that, Grant said.

“I know my husband went to [a fast-food restaurant], and positions there start at $15 an hour,” Grant said. “That’s good. I’m not saying that’s not good, but if the pay keeps going up then we have to make sure we raise our prices to address for what we are paying out in labor costs.”

Additionally, Grant said because restaurants are so short-staffed, they are seeing more negative feedback.

“We have such patient customers and staff that does work here,” Grant said. “If there was one thing I would want to say to everyone is that to please, please have some patience and some grace and some understanding. Restaurants are doing the best we can.”